The most prestigious club competition on Planet Futbol returned with aplomb on Tuesday as the group stage of the 2023-24 UEFA Champions League season kicked off.
The action on a star-studded Match Day 1 didn’t disappoint, either.
Here are five quick takeaways:
Kylian Mbappé rescues sputtering PSG
It was fair to wonder how much Paris Saint-Germain’s attack would suffer against the rest of the continent’s elite after losing two of the sport’s greatest attacking players – Lionel Messi and Neymar – over the summer.
Things haven’t gone great in Ligue 1, where the Parisians sit fifth after starting the season with a 2-1-2 record. But PSG still has perhaps the game’s best current player in Mbappe, and the French star got his side off on the right foot in the Champions League by scoring the opener in Tuesday’s 2-0 win over German juggernaut Borussia Dortmund.
The hosts also still have Achraf Hakimi, who doubled the lead less than 10 minutes later to seal the three points for PSG in decisive fashion. The hope now for Luis Enrique’s men is that the confidence-building victory is enough to get the squad back on track on both the European and domestic fronts.
AC Milan, Christian Pulisic could rue slow start
Coming on the heels of Saturday’s 5-1 humiliation to city rival Inter Milan in Italy’s Serie A, AC Milan needed to rebound in a big way in its Champions League opener against England’s Newcastle. It didn’t happen.
Despite dominating on the field and the stat sheet, the Rossoneri – who outshot the visitors 25-6 – were unable to score in front of their home fans and settled for a scoreless draw. It’s a disappointing result, not least because AC Milan, semifinalists last season, were drawn into the dreaded Group of Death. That AC Milan’s next two Champions League matches are away, first to Borussia Dortmund and then to Paris Saint-Germain, makes it even worse.
If one bad match can torpedo a team at the highest level, the same holds true for players. Christian Pulisic was perhaps manager Stefano Pioli’s top performer through Milan’s first three domestic matches. But after the American struggled mightily against Inter (along with everyone else), Pioli dropped Pulisic from his starting lineup for Tuesday’s contest. Pulisic was lively off the bench in the second half but couldn’t produce the breakthrough. It’s still early, but after the last two games, where things go for Pulisic and the Rossoneri is anyone’s guess.
Is Barcelona back?
When Barcelona failed to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League in 2021 for the first time in more than 20 years, it was a shock. When they got bounced in the group stage again last year, fans were almost resigned to the failure, viewing it as the perhaps inevitable consequence of finally moving on from Messi and so many of the other stars that had been the faces of the club for the better part of two trophy-laden decades.
Then, Barca used the disappointment as motivation and went on a second half run to win the Spanish title over hated Madrid rivals Real and Atletico.
This year, only a deep run in Europe’s marquee tournament will do. It’s only one game, but so far so good for the Spanish titans. Playing at home Tuesday against overmatched Champions League debutant Royal Antwerp, Xavi’s team steamrolled the Belgians, jumping out to a 3-0 lead within 22 minutes on strikes by João Félix, Robert Lewandowski and an own goal.
Gavi made it four early in the second half before Félix notched his second goal to make it 5-0, which is how it ended.
They won’t all be this easy. Next month’s trip to Porto will reveal much more about where Xavi’s team is. But after reeling off five consecutive wins and outscoring foes 18-4 along the way, this Barcelona teams looks capable of achieving – at the least — what its immediate predecessors couldn’t.
Manchester City, misfiring Erling Haaland survive Red Star scare
There was a moment at halftime at the Etihad Stadium where defending champs Manchester City, who were trailing 1-0 to Red Star Belgrade, actually looked mortal.
It didn’t last long. Normal order was restored just two minutes after the intermission when Julian Alvarez scored the first of his two goals. Rodri, who had the only goal in last season’s triumphant Champions League final, rounded out the scoring in the 3-1 win.
Like in June in Istanbul, this was a rare game in which Haaland didn’t add a goal of his own. But the big Norwegian (who had no shortage of chances) still contributed to the victory with a pretty assist on Alvarez’s equalizer.
Keeper’s goal highlights Tuesday’s action
How rare is it for a goalie to score from open play in the Champions League? Pretty rare. It happened just once in the competition’s first 31 seasons.
The second time came Tuesday in Rome when, with hosts Lazio trailing Atletico Madrid in second half stoppage time, backstop Ivan Provedel came forward and headed home the equalizer on the very last play of the game.
The 1-1 tie was probably a fair result in the end, though, as the visitors lone tally came on a shot that took a fluky deflection off Lazio’s Daichi Kamada.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports who has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at FIFA World Cups on five continents. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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